WE MAY BE only five days in, but Alex Ferguson will not have enjoyed 2012 so far.
First, he had to ring in the New Year in the knowledge that his side had just been beaten by bottom-of-the-table Blackburn Rovers in what has been dubbed the greatest ever Premier League upset – on his 70th birthday.
The blow was softened the following day when their Manchester neighbours went down 1-0 to Martin O’Neill’s rejuvenated Sunderland, meaning United remained level at the top.
While one loss is a setback, however, two on the bounce is unacceptable to a man who celebrated 25 years at Old Trafford in November.
An abject second half performance from United, who were already behind thanks to Demba Ba’s 15th league goal of the season, resigned them to their first back-to-back league defeats since March.
And with an FA Cup third round meeting with City on Sunday, on current form, there is a real possibility that Ferguson could be looking at three consecutive defeats for the first time in a decade.
Back in 2001, they went down to Derby, Southampton and Tottenham but were already out of sight and had the title wrapped up.
We are just past the halfway point of the season and you’d bee foolish to back against the Scot getting his hands on title No 20 come May but there are a number of problems in the current squad which need to be addressed immediately.
Sort out the midfield
The dogs in the street can see it and despite attempting to paper of the cracks, the centre of the park is a real weakness for United right now. Last summer, the Wesley Sneijder saga stretched the length of the summer – but never materialised.
That may not necessarily have been a bad thing as the Dutchman isn’t exactly what they are missing, but for Ferguson to fail to make a significant purchase in that area is a major oversight on his part as his side are short on protection for the defence and creativity going forward from central midfield.
United now rely on various combinations of players playing out of position (Jones, Rooney), a 38-year-old winger (Giggs) and Anderson and Michael Carrick, who simply haven’t been up to scratch.
Darren Fletcher’s condition means he is out indefinitely while Tom Cleverley is sidelined but should return soon. However, expecting a 22-year-old with a handful of starts to step up and fill the boots of Paul Scholes is naive and doubts over Fletcher have been there for some time now.
So why won’t Ferguson go out and buy a Martinez, M’Vila, Tiote, Modric, Sneijder, Eriksen or a Gotze? It’s got to be more than a stubbornness and signs would suggest the money just isn’t there.
However, if the Glazers want the debt-ridden club to remain at the top, they will need to fork out on a couple of quality midfielders… and fast.
Decide on a goalkeeper
United fans have been entangled in a debate over whether David De Gea or Anders Lindegaard should be the club’s No1 since the start of the season. 21-year De Gea has certainly made some bad calls between the sticks since his €21m move from Atletico Madrid in the summer but there is no doubt that he has got raw talent.
Danish stopper Lindegaard has had a much more low key integration into life at Old Trafford and calls for his inclusion have been gathering momentum in recent weeks. Last night showed that he is not the finished article either though.
Whoever Ferguson decides on, it is crucial that he does so before the business end of the season as having a confident goalkeeper playing consistently well will be vital if United are to retain the title.
Get Rooney playing again
Having your best player turn up for training still feeling the effects of the previous night is never good news for the manager of a professional team, never mind when it is just before you are about to go into the busiest part of the campaign.
Wayne Rooney’s lack of discipline on St Stephen’s Day was not something you would expect from a 26-year-old who has his career at the forefront of his thoughts. A suspension and one-week fine meant Rooney missed out on the Blackburn defeat and Ferguson will have been furious at the England striker’s antics.
Rooney returned against Newcastle last night and was given a central role with licence to roam from deep but was kept quiet by Cheick Tiote and performed well below-par before being replaced by Anderson.
Ferguson will rely heavily on his talisman in the next four months and after being knocked out of the Champions League and Carling Cup, City stand in the way of their Premier League and FA Cup pursuits.
A piece of brilliance like February’s derby-winning volley would be the a good way to start repaying his manager on Sunday.